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Errol Morris takes on Donald Rumsfeld

GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

Though they may have once commanded the most powerful army in the world, they should beware Cambridge moviemaker Errol Morris and his fearsome Interrotron, a filming system that compels an eyeball-to-eyeball conversation between interviewer and interviewee. Morris, a documentarian to be reckoned with since he got a man off death row with “A Thin Blue Line” (1988), more recently has brought his investigative skills to the careers of two of America’s most controversial secretaries of defense.

In the Oscar-winning “The Fog of War” (2003), he nudged Robert McNamara, architect of the Vietnam War, into admitting his mistakes. In his newest film “The Unknown Known,” he confronts Donald Rumsfeld, who helped sell the War in Iraq. Interviewed by phone recently from New York, where he was promoting the film, Morris discussed the challenge of getting a straight answer from a man who frequently says nothing.

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Q. My first question is the last question you asked Rumsfeld: Why did he agree to do the interview? He says he doesn’t know. What do you think?

A. I can’t give you a definite answer for why he did it. I think he decided why not? He had just published “Known and Unknown,” his memoir. I called his lawyer and he said Rumsfeld will never speak to you. So I sent a letter and included a copy of “The Fog of War.” And then Rumsfeld invited me to Washington.

Q. Was he cooperative? You interviewed him for more than 36 hours.

‘People say I didn’t ask [Rumsfeld] the right questions. They forget he doesn’t answer questions — he deflects them.’

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A. I thought I was going to have to go to Washington or someplace like Montana or New Mexico, but he came to Boston. He was unfailingly cooperative. Since he recorded over the original tapes of his memos, he agreed to read them in the film. He was entirely forthcoming in one sense. In another sense, it was one of the most frustrating interviews I have ever done.

Q. After interviewing both McNamara and Rumsfeld, which one do you think had the biggest impact on history?

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A. They both screwed things up. But they couldn’t be more different. One is full of regret, reckoning with his past. But Donald Rumsfeld is delighted with himself and his policies. I asked would it have been better if we had not gone to Iraq at all? His answer: time will tell. The supposed insight, which is no insight at all, from someone who will never be held accountable.

Q. He’s still listened to, though. Recently he’s been talking about the Ukraine. What’s his lasting appeal?

A. Your guess is as good as mine. How many times have I heard even smart people say that Rumsfeld’s concatenation of words — known and unknown — is brilliant. I don’t think so. He first trucks it out not in a moment of philosophical introspection but as a non-answer to a Pentagon correspondent’s question — what evidence do you have that Saddam Hussein was providing terrorist organizations with weapons of mass destruction? And Rumsfeld replied that “there’s the known known, the known unknown, the unknown unknown.” And then he says that “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.” He could be saying one hand washes the other or a stitch in time saves nine.

Q. In “Standard Operating Procedure” (the 2008 film about the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison) you interviewed a CIA interrogator and he was impressed with the Interrotron. He asked how many people you had interrogated with it. You said you didn’t interrogate, you interviewed. Is this a case where you wished you interrogated?

A. No. It’s a misunderstanding about what I do. I’ve made a series of films about self-deception. This might be the most powerful example of that sort of thing. People say I didn’t ask him the right questions. They forget he doesn’t answer questions — he deflects them. I decided early on that I was doing something different. To try to capture something of how he sees himself.

Q. You are trying to catch him in his own lies?

A. The memos were the way in for me. They’re not an attempt to record history — they’re an attempt to obliterate history. Part of the conceit of the film is to have him read them and let him explain what they mean. Even though there may not be answers to specific questions, I believe that the non-answers, the refusal to confront what he has done, are telling. Here is a man who could say two contradictory things in one sentence and not realize it. It’s hard to realize that he was once one of the most powerful men in the world. I call this a horror movie. That’s exactly what it is.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.

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